James Wright of the Global Aquaculture Alliance explains how the aquaculture industry is beginning to address the fishmeal feed bottleneck with microalgae, insects and single-cell organisms.
Expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by mid-century, the growing global population requires efficient means of protein production. Consumer demand for animal protein could increase by as much as 80% by 2050, according to some estimates, a trend fuelled by population growth and increasing middle-class spending power. With suitable land for terrestrial livestock production at a premium, the food systems of the future must turn to the water.
Aquaculture, one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, already accounts for more than half of the global edible seafood supply, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Studies show that farmed fish – carnivorous species like salmon, trout and sea bass, for example – raised on aquafeeds retain more protein and energy than do farmed cattle, pigs and chickens. Furthermore, farmed fish have a greater edible yield while also boasting a lower feed conversion ratio than their terrestrial counterparts. Figure 1 illustrates the environmental advantages that aquaculture has over terrestrial agriculture, in terms of protein production.
To further expand production, the fish farming industry must continuously strive to overcome its primary limiting factor: finite supplies of fishmeal and fish oil – or, in other words, the fish that farmed fish eat (anchovy, sardines, menhaden and sandeel, to name but a few). Global fishmeal and fish oil production have remained steady in recent years at 5 million metric tons (MT) of fishmeal and 1 million MT of fish oil annually, according to IFFO, The Marine Ingredients Organisation. But aquaculture’s demand for these ingredients is growing steadily.
In fact, aquaculture’s usage of the global fishmeal and fish oil supply has increased from roughly 10% in 1980 to nearly 75% in 2010, according to IFFO, which forecasts global fishmeal production to increase from 6 million metric tons (MT) in 2012 to up to 7.75 million MT in 2022, mainly due to increasing utilisation of fish processing byproducts (trimmings), which account for roughly 35% of current fishmeal production.
Responsible fishery management has also had positive impacts on these precious natural resources, but aquaculture’s growth trajectory, set against plateaued global wild-capture fisheries, has set up a future production bottleneck that only use of novel proteins and other feed ingredients can overcome (see Figure 2). Aquaculture producers have successfully utilised plant-based ingredients, like soy and soy-based proteins, for many years, but more recently their search for fishmeal and fish oil replacements has veered towards microalgae, single-cell organisms and insects.
While production of emerging fishmeal and fish oil alternative ingredients is currently small in scale, the aquaculture industry has begun sourcing limited quantities of these ingredients blended into innovative new aquafeed formulations, tailored to species based on documented nutritional requirements. Innovation in the sector has economic benefits as well: major feed companies are investing in new technologies for alternative ingredients while a growing number of outside investors, a sector traditionally wary of aquaculture ventures, are taking notice of the disruptive technologies and the vast opportunities that new businesses represent.
Making moves with microalgae
Founded in 2003 in California’s Silicon Valley, Solazyme initially set out to create a renewable fuel source by fermenting algae, a plentiful, inexpensive and sustainable resource that grows quickly and in almost any environment. The company ultimately switched its focus from biofuels to food, and its name to TerraVia (which is now a part of Corbion N.V., a Netherlands-based biotechnology company, following a late 2017 acquisition).
In conjunction with Bunge Oils, the company produces microalgae at its R&D laboratories in South San Francisco – and at a much larger scale at a sugarcane farm in Brazil, which boasts some of the world’s largest aerobic fermenters. The facility runs off the steam from the sugarcane mill, converting sugars into oils and into an algae biomass that’s marketed as AlgaPrime.
The product is billed as a traceable, sustainable, high-quality alternative to fish oil, as it produces the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) at levels of 28% or more.
According to Walt Rakitsky, senior VP of emerging business, there is a well-known deficiency of long-chain omega-3s and both humans and animals need a lot more than is available. AlgaPrime is not ‘out to replace’ fishmeal, but to serve as a complementary ingredient in nutritious aquafeeds, particularly for species that need a high omega-3 content, like farmed salmon.
The Chilean salmon producer Ventisqueros launched a Pacific coho salmon product in 2017, touting a forage fish dependency ratio of just 0.5 kilograms. The forage fish dependency ratio is a metric that is analogous to the ‘fish-in-fish-out’ ratio, which measures the kilograms of wild fish required to produce 1 kilogram of farmed fish. By using an aquafeed product produced by BioMar, with AlgaPrime as a major ingredient, the company claimed its Silverside™Salmon made Ventisqueros the aquaculture industry’s ‘first net salmon producer,’ creating more fish than it uses in feed.
Fermentation of single-cell organisms
California-based biotechnology company Calysta started making waves in 2015, when it announced the launch of a groundbreaking animal feed product that converts microorganisms – methanotrophs that feed on industrial methane – into a nutritious feed protein. Its methanotroph is a non-GMO, natural strain found in soils and sediments that sequesters carbon in the form of methane and grows in the same manner as yeast during fermentation. It uses up to 98% less water and more than 99% less land than soy and wheat proteins, the company contends.
Calysta manufactures the single-cell organism product FeedKindR protein at its ‘market introduction facility’ in Teesside, United Kingdom, and in April 2017 commenced development of a new plant on the 37-acre Nouritech™ facility in Memphis, Tenn., that it claims will be the world’s largest gas fermentation operation. Cargill, one of the world’s largest animal feed manufacturers, is an investor and partner in the venture.
Calysta CEO Alan Shaw describes FeedKindR as a high-grade source of protein, approximately 70%, that can be fed to both aquatic and terrestrial livestock, even household pets. While the farmed salmon sector is a particularly attractive market for the product, the company conducted a feed trial with farmed shrimp at Auburn University (Auburn, Ala., USA) that showed that shrimp fed a diet including FeedKindR had equivalent or higher survival and growth when compared to shrimp fed a standard fishmeal-based diet.
Calysta’s founder, Josh Silverman, sees the company’s big advantage as the ability to use methane as a feedstock because methane is the cheapest source of carbon on the planet. He claims that the low cost of methane will allow FeedKindR to be cost-competitive with natural fish oil.
KnipBio, another biotechnology startup founded by Larry Feinberg, is also employing the power of microorganisms to create alternative proteins for aquaculture. KnipBio’s R&D laboratory in Lowell, Mass., is ramping up production of an ingredient derived from a singlecell organism (Methylobacterium extorquens) that in nature is a leaf symbiont that grows on plant leaves.
The final product, a pink-coloured powder, is a dried and processed form of the microbial biomass produced via a fermentation process using natural gas. Certain forms of KnipBio Meal can contain astaxanthin carotenoids, which are important to aquaculture for the pink flesh colouring added to farmed salmon, trout and shrimp. Feinberg claims that the company can dial in the amino acid composition and the carotenoid expression level. He hopes that perceptions of biotechnology will evolve as products like his, and Calysta’s, prove their worth in seafood’s journey to greater sustainability.
Additional alternative ingredients will be available to aquafeed manufacturers in the coming years. David Tze, CEO of another California startup, NovoNutrients, said the company’s versatile and lowcost biotechnology production platform will launch two product lines – Novoceuticals, a feed additive, and Novomeal, a bulk feed ingredient – in the next five years. It uses a natural fermentation process to capture and convert carbon dioxide and other forms of waste carbon into animal feed. NovoNutrients’soon-to-be patented ‘microbial consortium’ includes hydrogen oxidising bacteria, which Tze refers to as the ‘workhorses’ of its proprietary technology.
Can insect meal outgrow its niche?
In 2017 the European Commission (EC) amended Regulations 999/2001 and 142/2011 allowing insect-based feeds and feed ingredients after more than two decades, opening the door for a handful of small insect meal manufacturers to penetrate the aquafeed market.
One contender is Agriprotein, which operates a waste supply chain and black soldier fly egg and juvenile larvae production facility in Cape Town, South Africa, manufacturing dehydrated larvae it markets as MagMeal™. The company engages in what it calls ‘nutrient recycling,’ taking in abundant food waste – a global figure that reaches 1.3 billion metric tons annually, according to the FAO – and byproducts for fly larvae to feed on. Agriprotein dries and processes the larvae into a nutritious feed ingredient. The company is rolling out licenses for agreements for factories in North America, South Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe. Jon Duschinsky, CEO of Agriprotein-US, describes the urgency of protein production as an impending crisis.
The company’s site in Cape Town can receive 100 MT of waste per day and convert that into 6 MT of MagMeal and about 3,000 liters of an oil extracted from the larvae. But as of March 2017, the company reported that it was running at only about 35 to 40% of that capacity.
Antoine Hubert, CEO of France-based mealworm company Ynsect, said investors are ready to bring money into the sector to expand production thanks to the EC decision. Ynsect, which produces mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) larvae to supply proteins, lipids, chitin and other compounds to the nutrition and green chemistry markets, has raised more than $37 million from public and private sources. It produces ‘several hundred tons’ of its de-fatted mealworm protein meal for aquafeed and pet food at Ynsite, its 3,000-squaremeter demonstration facility near the city of Dole, France. Ynsect aims to build a commercial production facility that could produce more than 20,000 MT.
Canada’s Enterra Feed Corp. has a black soldier fly production and processing plant with the capacity to transform 36,000 tons of food waste each year into 2,500 tons of protein and oil and 3,000 tons of organic fertiliser (the larvae ‘frass,’ or manure, that is loaded with beneficial microbes).
It is all a promising start for insect meals, but still a drop in the global animal feed industry bucket, an estimated $400 billion market, according to the International Feed Industry Federation.
Nutritional impacts of new feed formulations
With limits on global forage fisheries – traditionally the main ingredient in aquaculture feeds – the fish farming industry is clearly embracing the development of novel proteins derived from microalgae, single-cell organisms and insects.
To drive innovation in the aquafeed sector, and to find viable alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil, the University of Arizona and University of Massachusetts at Boston, along with the organisers of the X-Prize, launched the F3 (Fish Free Feed) Challenge in late 2015.
The contest – ultimately won by Chinese feed company Guangdong Evergreen Feed Industry Co. – drove sales of more than 100,000 MT of fish-free aquafeed products among all contestants. Arizona Professor Kevin Fitzsimmons described innovators like Evergreen as transforming farming systems that go back 2,000 years. The F3 Challenge team has rebranded itself as the Future of Fish Feed Challenge, and has a new focus on creating alternatives for fish oil.
But while the replacement of fishmeal and fish oil in aquafeeds with ingredients from terrestrial aquaculture has been a win for conservation efforts, diets containing less fishmeal and fish oil have inevitably impacted the nutritional profile of farmed fish.
Researchers at the University of Stirling (Scotland) announced in early 2017 that Scottish farmed salmon sampled in 2015 had roughly half the amount of omega-3 fatty acids of fish flesh sampled in 2006. Dr Matthew Sprague explained that as the aquaculture industry continues to grow, the finite amount of fish oil is being spread thinner and thinner and combined with vegetable oils in the feeds of fish, resulting in a decrease in the levels of omega-3s in farmed salmon. The work discovered an average of 1.5 grams of EPA+DHA per 100 grams of flesh, when in 2006 the standard recommended portion of 130 grams contained 3.5 grams of EPA+DHA. However, the researchers insisted that farmed salmon remains one of consumers’ best sources of omega-3s and delivers the second-highest EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)-plus- DHA levels of any fish species, behind only mackerel.
Aquaculture is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries and one of the most efficient means of producing animal proteins for human consumption.
Farmed aquatic species raised on aquafeeds retain more protein and energy from their feed sources than do farmed cattle, pigs and chickens, while in many cases boasting a higher meat yield and lower feed conversion ratio.
For the industry to capitalise on its massive opportunities for expansion, it must embrace new technologies and novel feed proteins like microalgae, single-cell organisms and insect meals to supplement finite global supplies of fishmeal and fish oil.
The aquaculture industry is proving itself to be highly adaptable and up to the challenge of identifying alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil. This type of innovation will be critical to provide enough food with adequate nutrition to feed a growing human population.